By a Newsnet reporter
The SNP has accused Danny Alexander of “rank hypocrisy” on supporting air services in Inverness – having made no attempts to help the industry while in government.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Alex Salmond said flights to and from Inverness are “essential for economic development” and that Flybe’s recent announcement of the sale of its slots at Gatwick underlined “the absolute necessity for Air Passenger Duty (APD) to be devolved to this parliament”.
The service between Inverness and London, which is heavily used by business travellers, is seen as vital to the economy of the Highlands. The Inverness and Scottish chambers of commerce, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, and Highland Council have all expressed their concern that the air link may be at risk.
Airline companies and airports have said that the high level of APD is a major obstacle to the development of the Scottish economy. Speaking last August, Garry Clark, head of policy and public affairs at the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said:
“We represent more than 10,000 Scottish companies from a range of different sectors and industries, of which many have and will continue to be affected by Air Passenger Duty in this economic recession.
“APD is a not just a barrier to inbound tourism, it’s also a barrier to inbound investment and global connectivity.
“If the Government is serious about pulling Britain out of this economic slump, it needs to acknowledge the negative impact the highest aviation tax in the world is having on our businesses, and rethink its current stance on the issue.”
In May this year, Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, said airlines were questioning the viability of basing planes in Scotland because of the high level of APD imposed by Westminster.
The Lib Dems supported the Calman Commission which recommended that APD should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but after gaining power as part of the Conservative-led Coalition the Lib Dems have since blocked any attempts to devolve control of the tax to Holyrood. Although the Lib Dems and Conservatives refuse to allow the devolution of APD to Scotland, control of the tax is already devolved to the Northern Irish Assembly.
In May Mr Alexander, who is Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, said: “We need to do everything we can to ensure that Inverness’ direct connections to the main London airports are maintained.” However despite this pledge the Treasury has not altered its stance on devolving APD to Holyrood.
Speaking at FMQ’s on Wednesday, First Minister Alex Salmond said:
“We should remember in context that Danny Alexander is a Liberal Democrat so adopting two positions at the same time may in itself be a part of party policy.
“But I think it is for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and local member for Inverness a rather invidious position to be responsible for the very Air Passenger Duty and taxation which is driving and threating services in Inverness and then complaining about it and posing as the defender.
“So perhaps if we agree on the position of devolving APD to this parliament to have a policy that benefits the Scottish economy then Danny Alexander would be relieved of his difficulty of having simultaneously to be the Treasury’s man in Inverness while pretending to be Inverness’ man in the Treasury.”
Commenting, Stewart Stevenson, who raised the matter at FMQs, said:
“In 2008 Danny Alexander campaigned for more services to and from Inverness to Gatwick but has done absolutely nothing in government to support these very air services he once fought for.
“That is rank hypocrisy – how can he tell the people of Inverness, particularly in the position he holds, and say he is doing everything to help the economy in Inverness?
“It has been made clear Flybe’s announcement was entirely of Westminster’s making – we have said time and time again the budget hike in Air Passenger Duty would be damaging for Scotland’s airports and the wider economy.
“It was the SNP that told Westminster that increasing the cost for airlines to fly to Scottish airports is the last thing they need – but they went ahead and did it anyway.
“It is clear Mr Alexander puts the Treasury’s interests ahead of what is in the best interests of the Highlands and Islands.
“The only way for us to set the best policies for our air services is for Scotland to have control over taxation, yet Westminster consistently refuses to devolve these powers. That is why we need to grasp the opportunity of a Yes vote on September 18th, 2014.”